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Why Would We Love You the Less?

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It would have been a beautiful day in the Jeralls if the air didn’t smell like smoke and death. The sky was the clear ice-blue of Kyne’s favour, the snow had melted away from most of the road as winter gave way to spring, and the bright splash of mountain flowers and snowberry bushes relieved the endless grey and white. But no matter how much beauty Eorlund tried to find in the day, the scent of smoke and death spoilt it all. Before them and behind, the Thalmor had done their best to destroy the heartland of Talos worship in Cyrodiil, given free reign by a desperate Emperor and a madman’s rebellion.

            “We shouldn’t be going up there,” he repeated to Vignar. Still clean-shaven and short-haired from his four decades in the Legion, the former Legate was staring up stonily at the ruins of Cloud Ruler Temple, his jaw set stubbornly.

            “I didn’t think you were a coward,” Vignar said flatly.

            “It’s not cowardice. Everyone’s probably dead,” Eorlund told him quietly. “If you and I die, Fralia and the children will be left destitute. Clan Grey-Mane will die out.”

            “My intelligence told me that Sonja’s boy was taken to Cloud Ruler by Dengeir’s daughter and a few Blades,” Vignar replied. “We need to know if he survived. If he didn’t, Hoag should hear the news from us.”

            Eorlund flushed. This was the first time Vignar had told him why they were going to check the ruins of Cloud Ruler Temple. “You better hope the Legion or the Thalmor don’t catch us. You know traitors and heretics are denied burials.”

            “It’s already arranged.” Vignar held up his hand and a distant figure, until now unseen, waved back. “Rikke Snow-Stone and Irkand Aurelius persuaded the Emperor to allow burial of the civilians. Ulfric wouldn’t have been in any position to fight. If he didn’t escape…”

            It took about ten minutes to reach the broken gates of Cloud Ruler Temple. Eorlund steadfastly turned his eyes away from the dead Blades hanging from crosses and instead focused on Rikke’s tall, well-muscled form. She and Dengeir’s daughter were the youngest of the Shieldmaidens of Talos. Sigdrifa was no doubt fled or dead. Rikke must have chosen pragmatism over her vows to Talos. Shieldmaidens could do that.

            “Ulfric’s not here,” Rikke said without preamble. “Neither is Sigdrifa. I suspect she knew what was going to happen and took herself and Ulfric through the Serpent’s Trail.”

            “You’ve personally identified all the dead then?” Vignar asked bluntly.

            “The ones I didn’t recognise, Irkand did.” Rikke pointed to the lone figure of a Redguard piling charred bodies on a pyre made from the remains of Cloud Ruler Temple. “Titus Mede owed us quite a bit for our actions during the Battle of the Red Ring, so we were declared Immunitas from the purge of Talos worshippers. Even so, I’ll have to keep my prayers to myself. The Thalmor have already wiped out the remaining Shieldmaidens at Yngvild.”

            “Is this what we’re reduced to?” Vignar asked bitterly. “Praying silently and keeping our heads down?”

            “If Arius hadn’t tried to take the Pale Pass and use it to cripple Cyrodiil’s trade, the Blades could have dispersed into the general populace and survived,” Rikke shot back, her tone as bitter. “We might have been able to sign a more favourable treaty than the White-Gold Concordat. But Arius rebelled, drove his Blades into a killing rage with the use of Illusion, and didn’t even have the luck of killing Elenwen and Nurancar before he died.”

            “We heard something of it,” Eorlund admitted. “Mede panicked, didn’t he?”

            “It was a closer thing than we expected. Mede was injured during the Battle of the Red Ring – Bosmer suicide commandoes – and nearly died.” Rikke shuddered. “It was close, Vignar. If it wasn’t for Irkand sacrificing another Blade to gain Goldbrand, Naarifin would have won and we’d all be under Vaermina’s sway.”

            Vignar’s eyebrow rose. “I thought it was Mede who wielded Goldbrand and killed Naarifin?”

            “That’s the official story. Irkand told me the armour squeezed in places he didn’t want to think about.” A flicker of humour crossed Rikke’s face. “By the time we recovered from the battle, Arius had already launched his rebellion. There was nothing we could do but bury the dead.”

            “Damn him for being a mad old bastard,” Eorlund said with a sigh. He’d met the Grandmaster of the Blades once and once was more than enough.

            “Irkand said something similar. His brother is up in Hammerfell, but… well… after the White-Gold Concordat signed away huge portions of the place, I doubt the Redguards are going to be part of the Empire. Rustem was already going native, I heard. Now, he’ll have twice the reason to stay there and fight the Thalmor.”

            Rikke glanced at Irkand. “My oath as a Shieldmaiden is to defend the Empire, even if it has forsaken Talos. Irkand will take vows as a Knight of the Circle; the Great War emboldened a lot of necromancers and Arkay’s priesthood will need his skills. The White-Gold Concordat is far from perfect, but it’s meant to buy us a generation or two of time. Tell the Jarls of Skyrim that.”

            “Talos is the heart of the world,” Vignar said gruffly. “To not worship Him…”

            “Worship Him quietly,” Rikke said. “The Thalmor are going to come hard at the Nords. We don’t need to give them an excuse.”

            Vignar smiled grimly. “Skyrim’s a big place, Rikke. All kinds of beasties like the taste of mer-flesh.”

            “May they feast well,” the Paler said quietly. “It is my duty to stay alive. I’ve been promoted to Legate Primus. The Empire will need the Nords to stay true if it is to survive.”

            Eorlund looked over his shoulder at the smoking plains of the Cyrod heartland. “If they’re going to throw our god under the cart to survive… Maybe it’s high time the Nords ruled themselves again.”

            “And then what? We can’t stand alone against the Dominion.” Irkand had finished piling the bodies on the pyre and joined them. “Hammerfell will likely fall. The Redguards are good fighters but their factional infighting prevents them from achieving unity. It’s the best of a bad lot of choices.”

            Eorlund pointed to a certain cross. “Your father’s up there.”

            “Yes, I know. He made his choice and died by it.” Irkand’s jaw muscles rippled in anger. “I lost friends because of my father’s choices. Don’t tell me the cost of this war.”

            Eorlund exchanged glances with his brother. Neither could imagine being so cold about a family member, even if he was a bad person. Maybe that’s why Irkand was an assassin.

            “If Ulfric’s not here, we better get going,” Vignar said. “We have our own families to worry about. Dozens, if not hundreds, of Nords will die for this Concordat, Rikke.”

            “That’s their choice,” the Shieldmaiden said quietly. “Talos counsels patience, wisdom and even a little deception when necessary.”

            The Grey-Mane brothers said nothing more, instead nodding curtly to the Blade and the Shieldmaiden and returning to the road. Vignar held up his hand and knelt, studying a blurred set of tracks.

            “I want to find this Serpent’s Trail,” he said. “Let’s see if Tanna taught me well enough.”

            The cave was off the track a little bit, only the signs of recent passage leading Vignar and Eorlund to it. A piece of fine wool was caught on a snowberry bush that half-concealed it and Vignar plucked it from the branch. “Turquoise,” he noted. “A rare dye.”

            “Ulfric would be wearing blue or grey,” Eorlund reminded him.

            “Of course. Maybe it wasn’t just Sigdrifa and Ulfric who got away.” He tucked the scrap in his pocket. “Let’s investigate this trail.”

            The Serpent’s Trail was as winding as its namesake, ancient Akaviri fortifications cropping up in the bigger caverns. A few bandits (or deserters) had set themselves up and while their smuggled goods were valuable, there was no sign of someone in turquoise wool or a pair of young Nords. Eorlund was fairly certain they backtracked four or five times before they found the entrance on the Skyrim side.

            Coming out of the cave, the air smelt of fresh snow and mountain flowers. Eorlund inhaled deeply and released it slowly, savouring the scent of Skyrim. Home was the edge of green-gold on the horizon but Falkreath was close enough for muscles long tensed to relax a little.

            Vignar followed the tracks to a small alcove in the side of the road. A little girl, maybe six or seven and wearing soot-stained turquoise wool that had seen better days, was using spurts of fire from one hand to cook the haunch of a clumsily killed and skinned rabbit. Eorlund winced at the ruination of what could have been a fine pair of mittens. It wasn’t the child’s fault she’d obviously never learned to dress a rabbit properly.

            “Child,” Vignar said gruffly, “Have you seen two young Nords? One would be a dark-haired woman and the other a man with dark gold or brownish hair.”

            Eorlund rolled his eyes. Vignar had no skills in dealing with women or children. It was why he’d never married. He pulled out some bread and offered it to the wide-eyed girl. “Some bread to go with your rabbit.”

            “Thank you.” Her voice was soft and timid. “I think they’re gone north.”

            “Ulfric’s alive,” Vignar said in relief. “Thank the Nine.”

            “You better say ‘Eight’ now. The Empire says Talos isn’t a god,” the girl said with the wisdom of too much sorrow.

            “The Empire can kiss my arse,” Vignar said bluntly. “You had family at Cloud Ruler Temple?”

            She nodded. “The Thalmor came. They set fire to everything.” She lifted her magic-using hand and was suddenly sheathed in crystalline light. “I know some magic and ran away.”

            “That was the wisest thing you could have done, child,” Eorlund said gently. “You’re certain Sigdrifa and Ulfric are alive?”

            “I ran away after we came here.” There was a bitterness in her voice. Pretty child, tall for a Cyrod or maybe a Redguard. Nord blood in her with that gently squared jaw. “They were going to pretend Mother was never married to Father. Guess they can get married and she can have real Nord babies now.”

            The spell died away with a spurt of light. Eorlund could now see the blue-green eyes of the Kreathling Jarls, though this girl’s turquoise gaze was stained with gold. “I don’t understand.”

            “I do,” Vignar said with a sigh. “Arius got the bright idea to marry his eldest son to Dengeir of Falkreath’s only daughter. It should have been a good match but…”

            “They didn’t like each other,” the child finished bluntly. “Mother didn’t like me or Father, Father didn’t like her and liked Delphine better. She used to like Uncle Irkand but she liked Father more.”

            Eorlund shook his head in disgust. “I can’t blame Sigdrifa for wanting to divorce her husband. But why didn’t you stay with them?”

            “Because she didn’t like me.” The child drew a short, blunt-ended knife with a turquoise pommel. “Do you want some meat? It isn’t much but it’s polite to share.”

            “I think I know what Sigdrifa is planning for Ulfric,” Vignar said quietly after they’d set up camp in the alcove, screening their location with branches and tent canvas. Callaina, the child, had curled up and gone to sleep once Eorlund kindled a proper fire. They’d had about a mouthful of rabbit each, most of the beast charred from lightning and fire. In return, they shared some mead with her. It was the law of hospitality, ingrained in the very bones of the Nords, even a child practically raised as a Cyrod. Meat and mead guaranteed peace between guests.

            “A marriage between a Battle-Tongue and a Shieldmaiden would be a very powerful symbol,” Eorlund agreed. “Hoag’s just enough of a traditionalist to object to his son marrying a divorced Shieldmaiden. But proven fertility and this White-Gold Concordat might allow him to get over it…”

            “Or you can just pretend your marriage didn’t happen because, so far as you know, your child is dead or gone,” Vignar finished disgustedly. “I understand the political needs of the matter, but that she would just…”

            “She’s no better than Rikke and may be a little worse,” Eorlund agreed. “Rikke, at least, I can understand.”

            “Given the amount of insult Arius gave Dengeir, the Jarl of Falkreath probably will go with it,” Vignar said with a sigh. “So we can’t take Callaina to Falkreath. Windhelm’s out too.”

            “Riften is out of the question,” Eorlund said firmly. “Honorhall isn’t called ‘the Thief’s Nursery’ for nothing.”

            “Agreed. The child’s got a sense of honour.” Vignar arranged his cloak over the sleeping girl. “Do you think Fralia will mind taking on another child?”

            “She’s always wanted a daughter,” Eorlund said quietly. “You don’t want to send her back to Irkand?”

            “Irkand’s taking religious vows, remember? I know Titus Mede. He’ll be angry most of the Aurelii are beyond his reach, in one way or another. This poor child will bear the brunt of it if we return her to Bruma.” Vignar’s voice was soft but firm. “Can you think of a better option?”

            Eorlund sighed and shook his head. “I can’t. But why do you care so much, Vignar?”

            The former Legate stared blindly past the tent canvas. “We’ve lost our god and will lose many Nords because of Titus Mede. This Nord child won’t be lost to the Empire or the Dominion.”

            The blacksmith bowed his head. “I understand, brother.”

            It took them two days to return home, partially because of Callaina’s short legs and the rest because of a stop to warn Ragnhild of Riverwood about the White-Gold Concordat. The hetwoman was a lay priestess of Talos and a cousin to the newly raised Jarl Balgruuf of Whiterun. Her rage was a dire harbinger of the Nordic reaction to Mede’s cowardly treaty.

            Balgruuf himself, spotty-cheeked and lanky, sat awkwardly in the Stallion Throne as Vignar delivered the news from Cyrodiil. “The High King won’t protest,” he said in a drawling tenor. “The Imperials took his baby son Torygg to be ‘fostered’ in the Imperial court and paid off the other Jarls with gold that’s ostensibly to rebuild our depleted Holds. I know a bribe when I see one, however.”

            “What will you do?” Vignar asked.

            “Take their gold, rebuild Whiterun and learn how the Cyrods play the game,” was the young Jarl’s answer. “Even if the Redguards win, even if we manage to rebuild the Legions in ten years, and even if we can restore trade to pre-war levels, it will be a generation or two before the Dominion invades again. We’d be wise to keep our heads down, train our children and grandchildren in their tactics, and rebuild our Holds.”

            “He has a point,” Eorlund told Vignar. “It isn’t a great one… but… we saw Bruma and Cloud Ruler.”

            Vignar sighed and nodded. “I can see the truth of it. But others may be able to see further and act sooner.”

            Balgruuf took their word readily enough that Callaina was an orphan of the Great War they’d found on the way home (not a lie, as her father was in Hammerfell and her mother effectively disowned her) and registered her as Calla of Clan Grey-Mane. That set her rank and wergild to that of a landed franklin; thin enough protection when there were landless kinless churls with more gold than the clan, but better than being an orphaned churl of no known clan.

            Fralia had fretted over Calla being a spoilt Cyrod brat because of her fine clothing, ruined as it was by travel. But within the week, wearing a long tunic and skirt cut down from one of Fralia’s old dresses, the girl was feeding the cow and chickens without complaint. She lacked most of the skills of a Nord child, something which was remedied by Fralia soon enough. The main challenge was getting her not to do her chores with Telekinesis in public. No one wanted claims of a ‘witch child’ running around after the trouble in the Reach and fears of a hill-clan invasion into Whiterun’s rich golden fields.

            By the end of the year, the only way to differentiate Calla from the gaggle of children living in Whiterun was her olive-bronze skin and blue-green eyes. Her height had shot up after eating Fralia’s good solid food for several months, making her about medium-sized for a Nord. What had she been eating in Cloud Ruler? No food suitable for a child, Eorlund imagined.

            Sigdrifa and Ulfric got married in Windhelm and within the first three years of marriage, she’d whelped two sons. Then the teenaged Jarl Igmund of the Reach asked Windhelm’s help in liberating Markarth from Madanach’s Reachman hordes, promising free worship of Talos. It ended about as well as to be expected; Ulfric was imprisoned and Sigdrifa barely escaped the Thalmor. The Grey-Manes gave her a night’s shelter reluctantly when she came to Whiterun.

            Whatever she was, the woman was married to their nephew and Nords assisted their kin whenever possible.

            “If Balgruuf had helped finance us, we would have had the men to deal with not only the Reachmen but the Imperial forces as well,” she said harshly after the traditional welcoming meal of meat, mead, bread and salt. “I will remember his actions, believe me.”

            “It must be hard for you,” Fralia said sympathetically. She set the table; the gentle swell of her pregnancy visible under the tan homespun dress she’d sewn from fabric woven by Calla. The priestess at the Temple of Kynareth was certain this one would be a boy to follow the daughter she’d had nine months and a week after Eorlund’s return home. Two sons, two daughters. Eorlund would be grateful to Kyne Sister-Hawk for Her blessings and ask for no more. “This is your second husband lost to those wretched Thalmor, right?”

            “I’ve only ever married once.” Sigdrifa’s tone was acid frozen into ice.

            “Girl, we damn well know that’s not true,” Vignar told her bluntly. “I understand the political necessity of the fiction, but there are no falsehoods in our household. If you don’t like it, beg hospitality of Balgruuf in Dragonsreach.”

            If looks could have killed, Vignar should have died the winter-death from the glare Sigdrifa bestowed upon him. But he was Ulfric’s closest male kinsman barring the terminally ill Hoag, a former Legate of the Falkreath First Legion, a Companion in good standing who stood just below the Circle in influence and a hereditary Thane of Whiterun. There wasn’t much Sigdrifa could do to retaliate, even if she should become Jarl-Regent of Windhelm for her sons Bjarni and Egil.

            Eorlund stepped into the awkward silence. “We didn’t mean to rile you, Sigdrifa. Fralia was trying to be kind.”

            Her mouth tight, Sigdrifa inclined her head in acceptance of the implied apology. “Rustem and I never truly considered ourselves married so it’s easier to pretend it never existed.”

            Easier for who? Eorlund wondered.

            When Sigdrifa went into the bathhouse to wash herself and change into clean clothing, Vignar swore under his breath. “I fear for Windhelm if she becomes Jarl-Regent,” he said heavily. “I’m going to send messages to the Shatter-Shields and Cruel-Seas. They’ve got enough influence to force Hoag to appoint three guardians for Bjarni and Egil, should Ulfric die in prison.”

            “Her, Torbjorn and Fjotli?” Fralia asked, bringing in a big pot of stew.

            “Probably. I’m pretty sure Galmar’s already the oathsworn protector of the boys. Ulfric wouldn’t leave his sons vulnerable to Legion kidnapping,” Vignar confirmed. “Should we tell her about Calla?”

            “No.” Fralia and Eorlund spoke in unison.

            “Agreed. Avulstein!” Vignar’s bellow summoned Eorlund’s oldest, the eleven-year-old Avulstein. He was already a husky lad with muscles from working the bellows in the Skyforge. Sadly, he didn’t have the skill to infuse good metal with magic, let alone manipulate the energies of the sacred Kyne-blessed forge that produced the Companions’ signature weapons. But he could make for a good smith, maybe for old Gerdhan’s smithy at the Whiterun gates.

            “Yes, Uncle?” he asked in a squeaky tenor.

            “Take Calla to Jorrvaskr and ask Aunty Tilma if she and you could stay there for a couple days,” Vignar ordered. “Your cousin’s wife is here and she’s… not a child person.”

            “Calla said she’d call her a Daedra, but Oblivion might be embarrassed to be associated with her,” Avulstein answered bluntly.

            “That’s why it’s better you two should stay with Aunty Tilma for a couple days,” Eorlund said with a laugh.

            “Yes, Father.” Avulstein ran upstairs, packed two sacks full of clothing and toys, and went to get Calla. The girl would no doubt be glad to escape chores for a couple days and avoid Sigdrifa.

            Eorlund sighed. If only the rest of the Grey-Manes could be so lucky.

            Sigdrifa thankfully left after one night. Vignar’s pigeons still beat her to Windhelm and once Hoag had died, a three-person Regency had been declared until Ulfric was either released or Bjarni should come of age.

            Seven years Ulfric was imprisoned in Solitude’s Castle Dour. Oh, he had a very comfortable cell with all the trappings of a noble’s bedroom, could receive visitors approved by the Legion or High King Istlod, and was permitted to exercise in the courtyard once a day. But it was prison and he became harder and sharper for it. “Like a broken bottle,” Vignar said after a trip to Solitude.

            During those seven years, Avulstein and Calla had come of age, going on their ice wraith hunts with Idolaf Battle-Born, Hadvar Harnbjornsson of Riverwood and Ragnhild’s younger child Ralof. The ice wraith hunt went well enough but when a passing Thalmor Justicar tried to bring them and Balgruuf’s brother Hrongar in for illegal Talos worship, Ralof went berserk and killed two Thalmor in under a minute. His mother had been crucified as a known priestess of Talos two years earlier. Balgruuf, in a rare act of defiance, exiled the youth instead of sending his head to the Legion as an apology.

            That scarred an entire generation of Whiterun’s youth. Avulstein followed Ralof to Windhelm, finding solace in Ulfric’s growing hatred of the Dominion; Idolaf and Hadvar became good little Legion recruits, prating the White-Gold Concordat like a prayer that would protect them; Calla had screaming nightmares for three years, old traumas she’d suppressed coming back.

            The Grey-Manes had been unhappy but resigned to the status quo. Now Vignar and Eorlund threw themselves into their work at Jorrvaskr, training the Hero-Twins Vilkas and Farkas in their respective trades as skald and blacksmith. Their once-friends the Battle-Borns yoked themselves fully to the Imperial cause, causing a rift between the clans when Idolaf called Avulstein a traitorous heretic at the Winter Holdmoot of 4E190. Eorlund knew that Olfina still hung around Jon Battle-Born; the lanky would-be skald and his cousin Alfhild were the only members of their clan worth more than the good clean earth they’d be buried in when they died.

            Whiterun was crumbling at the centre and even Balgruuf’s clever tongue couldn’t patch things up.

            Thorald came of age, hunted an ice wraith under Hrongar’s keen eye, and joined the Stormcloaks. Olfina took a job as a barmaid at the Bannered Mare once she was old enough to serve food and drinks. Calla divided her time between helping Fralia at home and Tilma at Jorrvaskr when she wasn’t spinning, dyeing and weaving the finest cotton in Whiterun, which was to say the finest cotton in Skyrim since Whiterun was the source of Skyrim’s cotton.

            It wasn’t until Eorlund was massaging the small of his back after forging a Skyforge Steel war axe for Ulfric’s son Bjarni that he realised twenty years had come and gone since the end of the Great War. Vignar had become craggier but remained active enough to fool someone who didn’t know he was seventy-two; Eorlund himself was sixty-four and Fralia sixty-two. Sigdrifa and Ulfric were in their early fifties. Balgruuf was forty. Olfrid Battle-Born was sixty-eight and still abrasive. Calla and Avulstein were almost thirty, Olfina twenty-one and Thorald almost eighteen. Ralof and Hadvar were battle-hardened veteran soldiers, one an agent for Ulfric and arms master to his boys and the other the personal Quaestor to Legate Primus Rikke.

            Sixty-four and I don’t have grandkids, he thought ruefully as he pulled Bjarni’s axe from the quenching trough. Olfina wanted to marry Jon Battle-Born but Olfrid threatened violence if they continued meeting. It was a bad thing to pray for yet Eorlund heartily wished Kyne would call Olfrid across Her Veil to Sovngarde or rebirth. Hell, Arkay could have the man for all he cared. He just wanted Olfina to be happy with her chosen man.

            Avulstein was sweet on an Argonian lass named Shahvee who worked on the docks, but she wouldn’t leave her people until things were better for them. Eorlund was a true Nord and felt he should encourage Avulstein to look somewhere else but… He wanted his children to be happy. Shahvee sounded like a real sweetheart, even if Avulstein was censured by his fellow Stormcloaks for his romantic interest. When the lad was next in town, he should encourage him to bring Shahvee down here, maybe with a cousin or two. Whiterun could use a couple good fisherfolk who could fish for salmon in the White River.

            Thorald was like any young lad, falling in and out of love every other day with just about every person of an appropriate age. “He swings like an inn sign,” Avulstein had laughed the last time the family gathered at home. Apparently he’d gotten into a fight with Bjarni Ulfricsson over the favours of a pretty Dunmer lass. Eorlund had delivered a lecture about fighting with a kinsman while suppressing a smile. It wouldn’t hurt Bjarni and Egil to have the normal life of a Nord now and again when their parents were uncompromising zealots.

            Calla interrupted his reverie by arriving with a basket of food. Idolaf, Hadvar, Ralof and even Hrongar had tried courting her yet she’d turned them all down flat. So far as Eorlund knew, she’d never taken a lover or even just gone for a tumble in the hay after a Holdmoot with some attractive person. It wasn’t because she was plain; even with the premature silver streaks in her black hair from the grief and strain of her early life, she was still one of the most beautiful women in Whiterun. Her household skills were exemplary and her cotton fabric sold well enough to cover the household bills during a lean season.

            “Thanks, lass,” he said, taking the basket with a smile. “Any news from the marketplace?”

            “Ulfric’s sent Bjarni to Jorrvaskr to ‘learn some discipline’,” she reported, folding her arms. “I guess that fight with Thorald really got him in hot water.”

            “Lads fight over silly things all the time,” Eorlund said, reaching for oil and a whetstone to begin sharpening the axe blade.

            “I think it was because she was a Dunmer that’s pissed Ulfric off,” was Calla’s immediate response. “Probably Sigdrifa too. I’ve heard she’s trying to get Bjarni married to Friga Shatter-Shield and Egil to Njada Stonearm or Fjotli Cruel-Sea. A Dunmer romance would spoil those plans.”

            Eorlund gave her a surprised glance. “I didn’t know you kept up with the gossip, lass.”

            “I learned at a young age keeping a weather eye on the Stormsword was a good way to survive,” Calla said bluntly. “Friga and Fjotli are big customers of my brocade and sateen. Neither of them relishes Sigdrifa as a potential mother-in-law and aren’t shy about saying so.”

            “It’s been twenty years, lass. Are you still that frightened of her?” Eorlund began to sharpen the axe.

            Calla looked over Whiterun. The Skyforge had a view that was only bettered by Balgruuf’s own balcony. “I’ve never known a life without fear,” she finally said. “Fear for myself, fear for you and the other Grey-Manes, fear of the Empire and the Dominion and the Stormsword.”

            “You’re a Grey-Mane,” Eorlund told her thickly.

            “Not for a few years yet.” Her smile was brief as she touched one of her silvering locks.

            “No one knows your bloodlines, lass.” Eorlund let the rasp of whetstone and oil against steel soothe his nerves.

            “It’s obvious I’m related to the Kreathling Jarls. Even if people assume I’m one of Granduncle Balgeir’s bastards, the Stormsword has killed or exiled enough of them for me to look over my shoulder.” Calla folded her arms again defensively. “I’d go to Hammerfell, except my father’s second wife wouldn’t look kindly on a child from his first coming out of nowhere. They might be divorced but my presence would threaten her own son’s inheritance.”

            “The Dominion would kill you for being an Aurelii and the Empire would make you either a broodmare or an example,” Eorlund finished, seeing where she was going.

            “Yes. At the very least, I’m descended from a woman who shook Cyrodiil to its core and was insane enough to become an aspect of Sheogorath. The mere hint of a fertile Aurelii woman existing would bring the Penitus Oculatus and the Thalmor Justicars quicker than mead brings Companions to the board at Jorrvaskr.”

            “Is that why you’ve never married or even taken a lover?” Eorlund asked gently.

            She nodded. “It’s bad enough I’ve put you in danger by existing. I couldn’t do that to someone I loved.”

            “Sigdrifa wouldn’t be stupid enough to attack any member of Clan Grey-Mane,” Eorlund said calmly. “We’re short on coin but long on honour, lass.”

            “All it takes is one Brotherhood assassin.” Calla ran her hands over her face and through her hair. For the first time, Eorlund realised she was trembling. “Kyne forgive me, but I hate that woman. I hate my father. I even hate my brothers because they never lived in fear.”

            Eorlund set aside the whetstone and axe. Bjarni’s weapon could wait. “As I said, lass, we might be short on coin but we’re long on honour. Vignar’s had letters prepared against the day that the Stormsword should move against us. You’re not the only one who believes in keeping a weather eye on things.”

            “Letters?” Calla asked in disbelief.

            “Letters,” Eorlund confirmed with a smile. “I know we don’t make a big deal about Vignar being a hereditary Thane because there’s landless clanless churls who make more in a month than we do in six. But you have to remember that legally, a Thane’s word outweighs anyone but a Jarl, a Jarl’s huscarl or a Steward’s in the Holds. Sigdrifa Stormsword isn’t even a Thane; she only has a huscarl because she’s Ulfric’s wife. Vignar’s written down everything he knows about her and deposited it with Balgruuf, who has his own reasons for wanting a muzzle on the Stormsword. Another copy is held by the Companions of Jorrvaskr and if it comes to that, the Harbinger’s word is equal to the Steward of the High King.”

            He wrapped an arm around Calla’s stiff shoulders and gave her a side-hug. “Your mother, legally speaking, is an unlanded woman of royal ancestry. Her religious vows took her out of the succession in Falkreath and because she’s a lapsed Shieldmaiden, she has no standing in the temples. I suppose one could consider her a commander in the Hold’s guard, which would put her just below Galmar Stone-Fist and equal to a Companion of the Circle or a Thane’s huscarl.”

            “So she ranks me and Vignar ranks her?” Calla asked, brow furrowing.

            Eorlund allowed himself a grin. “No, lass. You, Olfina, Thorald and Avulstein have an equal share in House Grey-Mane. That makes you a landed franklin of noble ancestry. Depending on the Hold, you’re equal to your mother or a little higher. If anything were to happen to Balgruuf and his spawn, the choice for Jarl would be between Clan Grey-Mane and Clan Battle-Born. I suppose it would depend on who has the upper hand in Skyrim – the Stormcloaks or the Imperials.”

            He gave her another side-hug. “That means if you or any other member of Clan Grey-Mane are hurt and it can be traced back to Sigdrifa, copies of those letters are sent to the Jarls of the Old Holds, High King Istlod and even Legate Primus Rikke Snow-Stone. At the least, the Stormsword will lose a lot of her honour and justification for commanding Ulfric’s armies. At the most, she could even face execution – and she has enough enemies who would call for it.”

            “That doesn’t stop an assassin,” Calla said softly.

            “True.” Eorlund chewed on his bottom lip. “I think Tilma needs an apprentice. You’ve been doing much of her work anyway and the Dark Brotherhood, no matter how much coin was offered, would attack someone associated with the Companions. Not after what Harbinger Mecklen Bloody-Blade did to the Dawnstar Sanctuary over a century ago.”

            He reached for the whetstone and axe. “Let me finish up this job and I’ll talk to Kodlak Whitemane.”

            Kodlak was poring over an ancient tome, using a magnifying glass from High Rock because his eyes were going, when Eorlund came to his study. Calla was already helping Tilma air out the winter woollens now the first frost had come. Even Nords could get frostbite if they weren’t careful.

            After Eorlund relayed the conversation and his solution, the Harbinger put down his magnifying glass and gestured to the other seat. Eorlund sat down, glad to be off his feet for a bit.

            “I had been considering this problem since Ulfric’s messenger arrived,” Kodlak finally said. “I had no idea Calla was so consumed by her fear.”

            “I suppose being the Stormsword’s daughter taught her to keep her true feelings to herself,” Eorlund said. “I… can’t imagine how someone can be so…”

            “Ruthless? Driven? Devoured by ambition?” Kodlak finished. “Sigdrifa is what the Shieldmaidens made of her. I didn’t mourn when the Thalmor put Yngvild to the torch. Whatever honour the Shieldmaidens had probably died with Sidgara in the Oblivion Crisis, because all they did was take little girls and turn them into heartless automatons who saw themselves and others as tools for the greater glory of Talos.”

            Eorlund blanched. “Like she’s done to Ulfric.”

            “He was broken before he ever met Sigdrifa. Skjor was part of the team that rescued him from Falinesti. He channels his self-hatred for being broken into hatred of the Empire and mer alike.” Kodlak sighed gustily. “It is a miracle that Bjarni and Egil are as well-adjusted as they are. Galmar and Ralof should be commended for raising those boys to be better than their parents.”

            “Bjarni would adore having a sister,” Eorlund said quietly. “But Calla…”

            “Calla has endured wounds that could cripple the greatest Companion without complaint for most of her life,” Kodlak said with another sigh. “She has a certain strength of spirit that the Stormsword will never possess. That strength will be the grace and heart of Jorrvaskr in days to come.”

            “But?” Eorlund asked.

            “It isn’t time for Bjarni to know about his sister. I see him standing in the eye of a storm and if that storm breaks, the world as we know it ends.” Kodlak shuddered, his eyes far away. “In Egil’s hands I see a shining sword of the dawn and if he cannot master himself, the sun will turn red and the blood of men flow like a river to the sea of damnation. Brother against brother and the fate of the Empire in their hands. And these events are merely the prelude to the return of an ancient evil on blackened wings.”

            It was commonly known that the Harbinger was blessed (or cursed) with prescience regarding dangers to Skyrim. But Kodlak, born of a Ravencrone from Morthal, had a deeper, wider sense of things to come. Only Olava the Feeble and Idgrod Ravencrone herself had greater prophetic powers.

            “Bjarni and Egil will fight each other?” Eorlund asked, appalled.

            Kodlak’s gaze cleared. “No, thank the Nine. I was referring to the Son of Satakal and the Knight of the Circle. The Dark Brotherhood, in a year or three, will be too busy to worry about any kind of contract on Calla. Sigdrifa may even find her weapon turned against her should she press the issue.”

            “You should charge septims for fortunes like the rune-readers in the marketplace,” Eorlund said gruffly. “You’ve got the cryptic words down pat.”

            Kodlak chuckled. “Few people like to hear a harsh truth instead of a pleasant lie, Eorlund – and I was never good at lying.”

            He leaned back in his chair and reached for the magnifying glass again. “Calla will become Mistress of Jorrvaskr once Tilma steps down. Until then, she can live with us or you as she wishes.”

            “Thank you,” Eorlund said gratefully.

            Calla had moved on to baking flatbread as Tilma washed dishes when Eorlund returned to the meadhall. “Kodlak said yes,” he told her with a smile. “He even said that the Brotherhood’s going to be very busy soon, too busy to worry about you.”

            “That isn’t a good thing,” Tilma chided.

            “If it keeps us alive, it is,” Eorlund assured her.

            Tilma sniffed. “Vignar would be pleased about that, but I thought better of you, little brother.”

            “What about Bjarni?” Calla asked.

            “It isn’t time for him to know. He’ll be very busy himself in the next couple years.” Eorlund smiled. “Now all we need is Olfrid to choke on a fishbone so Olfina can marry Jon Battle-Born.”

            “Eorlund!” Tilma shrieked in outrage. “You can’t wish a man dead like that!”

            “Not even Olfrid?” Eorlund asked with a grin.

            Tilma huffed and angrily washed the dishes.

            “Thank you,” Calla said over the sound of her angry muttering. “But… why did you go to so much effort?”

            Even now Calla doubted.

            “Because you’re as much my child as Olfina, Thorald or Avulstein,” he said gruffly. “Why would we love you any the less?”

            Calla began to cry for the first time in years and Eorlund embraced her.

            “There, there,” he said gently. “You have a family. You have clan. And you are a true Nord.”